No, We Didn’t See the Terracotta Army: 1987


In March 1987, John and I went to China with Travelsphere (travel company).  We stayed 14 days in Beijing and 3 days in Chengde, near the border with Mongolia.  You have to remember that this was early 1987; it was a China that wasn’t open to tourism; tourists could not travel on their own, it had to be a tour organised by the Chinese Tourist Authority.  It was a China that was not open to trading with the west; it was a China before the terrors of Tian an Men Square; it was a China before Hong Kong reverted to China; it was a China that few people knew anything about (except, of course, for Mao Zedung, who was dead).  Travelsphere had one of the first companies to offer a tour to China, there was no choice, just the one tour.  I saw it advertised and thought “this is it, I want to go”.

In my Tea Towel Blog about Chickens (dated 4/2/17), I talked about the issues around ‘down-sizing’ (or ‘right-sizing’, as is the more fashionable term).  Yesterday, I sorted through a small box, something I haven’t looked at for a long time.  It was full of miscellaneous things: a letter from Great Aunty Elsie telling me about the circumstances of my father’s birth, a whole load of Valentine’s Day cards, a letter from Gwyneth, my leaving cards from Coalville Social Work Team, my B.C.G vaccination certificate when I was 14 and a load more.  Amongst these things was an article I wrote for ‘Glenfrith News’, the newsletter for staff, relatives and (some) patients of Glenfrith Hosptal, a large hospital of 600 patients, for people with learning difficulties, where I had worked for 7 years, where I met John.  I read the article and thought “this just sounds like a Tea Towel Blog”.  No wonder I hadn’t got around to writing about the three tea towels that I have from China; I was obviously waiting for this (not that I remember having ever written it).

Although, there was not a lot known about China at this time, it was quite a secretive place, we did all know that China mass-produced cheap cotton goods so I was very hopeful that China would be a great source of tea towels.  I was very disappointed in this; the first tea towel I bought was the calendar of 1987, which I found being sold by a street seller, at the Great Wall of China.  Of all the gifts that were being sold, I think I was the only person to buy the tea towel.  This was quite a momentous holiday and I didn’t think one tea towel was enough.  On one day, we were allowed to wander around a Chinese Market, a huge market, a market for locals, not tourists.  The problem was that most of the stall-holders did not come across tourists, didn’t speak English.  Getting the Tour Guide to keep translating the words ‘tea towel’ was good fun.  There were few tea towels; families had so few goods that tea towels were not a priority; if you only have one bowl for each person in your household then there wasn’t a need for tea towels.  So having seen a stall with a few tea towels, I bought two very small, thin, towelling tea towels – one with yellow and one with red apples.  (Many apologies for the appalling photo; when I find them again I will reshoot them).  I was a ‘happy bunny’.  So this is the article that I found (I don’t think my style has changed over the last 30 years!!).

“On 3rd September 1985, we gave up smoking.  ‘We must do something with the money we saved’, we thought.  We’ll go to China!

It’s six months since we were in China; as friends return from rain-soaked Skegness or from being fried in Greece, our holiday seems a long time ago.  But, as I drive past the disused coal mines of Coalville, I remember it as if it were yesterday and wish we were still there.  The trouble is, no matter how many photographs we’ve got, it’s just not possible to tell it how it is.  It’s the size, the scale of it all; it’s the smell – there is a special smell of China, a clean, dusty smell that you can’t bring home in a suitcase, along with the Jade Chop-sticks and Chinese cigarettes.  There’s a way of life, that is so different from that in England, that from the moment you get on the Chinese Airways flight, you have to decide not to make comparisons; you just have to accept and let it all wash over you.

Seventeen hours (plus an eight hours time difference) made it a horrendous journey.  It was just like being in hospital; every time you doze off an Air Hostess wakes you up – first with toothpaste, then slippers, numerous drinks and some diabolical food – you’re never quite sure what meal it is supposed to be.  In-flight films were Chinese historical love stories, with sub-titles, which went on for hours and hours.

Dawn over the Himalayas soon got rid of the jet-lag; totally indescribable, miles and miles, as far as you could see, of snow-covered mountains, glistening in the bright sunshine.  It just takes your breath away, you want to keep it in your mind forever, so you will never forget.

We stayed in the centre of Beijing (Peking) in a hotel with a marble bathroom, en suite, and a balcony, overlooking a thoroughfare.  We would stand on the balcony, mesmerised by the traffic – bicycles, five million bicycles in Beijing.  The pavements are lined with bicycle stands, holding hundreds of bikes.  No families own cars; there would be no room because the population of Beijing is 11 million, in an area smaller than Leicester.  The only cars are taxis for the use of tourists and the only other vehicles are buses, crammed full of people.  The street sounds are voices and the screech of buses, braking to avoid bikes and pedestrians.  Bicycles are used to transport goods in the way vans are here; bicycles with trailers piled high with three double beds and mattresses or carrying coffin, surrounded by mourners.  You have to be there to believe the noise, the bustle, the street stalls piled high with vegetables – none of it looking as though it would pass Tesco standards, but when cooked turned out to be wonderful.  There is no point in going to China for a holiday unless you are prepared to eat Chinese food exclusively; there is almost no Western alternatives except perhaps at the Holiday Inn which has a Hamburger Bar.  Eating is a very important ritual in the Chinese way of life.  Meals are protracted and, even with a tight tourist schedule, never take less than 1.5 hours.

Breakfast was awful; a hotch-potch concession to Western tourists consisting of omelette and something akin to a Swiss Roll.  Mind you, breakfast always seems superfluous once you’ve realised the timing and size of lunch and dinner.  Lunch at 11.30am and dinner at 5pm were a little difficult to adjust to but we were rewarded by some wonderful meals (nothing akin to any Chinese restaurant here).  These meals consisted of a ‘starter’ – six or seven dishes of cold sliced meats, cold vegetables and the ubiquitous ‘thousand year old eggs’ – eggs that are buried in their shells in lime for three months and emerge as hard-boiled, dark green eggs which are considered a delicacy.  This would be followed by between ten to fifteen (25 at a banquet) hot dishes, meat, fish and vegetables.  Rice arrives towards the end of the presentation of hot dishes.  We all learnt to await, eagerly, the arrival of the soup, because this signified the end of the meal.  Beef, pork, goat, all kinds of seafood, including squid and shark, were a regular part of the diet.  We were offered rare delicacies which we were assured would have been rude to refuse – sparrow.  While many were squeamish about eating such a little roast bird (which clearly looked like a sparrow), it was actually delicious.  Occasionally, there was a sweet dish – lychees or small cakes.  We were only offered bean sprouts once!!  The standard mealtime drink was fizzy orange or beer, never a hot drink.

All the tours are conducted by the Chinese Tourist Authroity who try and ensure that tourists have a chance to see the most important antiquities, with a chance to also sample the Chinese way of life.  In Beijing, we went to the Forbidden City (built by the Emperors into which all commoners were forbidden; 10,000 rooms for the Emperor and his concubines), the Summer Palace, another extravagance of the Emperors; the home of Peking Opera; the Temple of Heavenly Peace and much more.  We went to the Great Wall of China and walked for some distance so you could see the Wall stretching for hundreds of miles across the hills.  It was so clear and so cold; the silence was haunting and no picture can ever convey the vastness and magic of it all.  We saw Mao Zedung, embalmed on display in a glass case, around which we had to walk in silent formation; we stood in Tian an Men Square, the largest square in the world, in temperatures below freezing while the local population stood and pointed at western women wearing skirts.  No self-respecting Chinese woman wears a skirt, quite impractical in winter.

We went round a commune, the economic unit of production through which housing, education, health and old age are provided for.  We visited a secondary school and children in a kindergarten sang “Twinkle, twinkle little star” in Chinese!  We went by train to spend three days in the country at Chengde, the summer resort of Emperors.  The journey through the mountains was spectacular; all the hillsides were terraced for farming, no space wasted.  The summer resort is centred round a huge lake which was partly frozen; outside are the temples (Buddhist, Lama etc) in which visiting tribes would worship.  We went round a silk factory and met students studying English at Chengde University.  The most amazing part of our stay at Chengde was the accommodation.  We stayed in Mongolian Yurts – a type of wooden-framed tent, which have been converted into ‘chalets’.  The plumbing could only be described primitive, there were no windows and the heating excessive.

One of the finest memories has to be all 26 of us, gathered in one Yurt, drinking Chinese brandy and playing Trivial Pursuit.  In fact, many of us have very little memory of that evening!  Jade, silk, hand-painted silk pictures, porcelain are all freely available as bargains to western tourists.  Many people on our tour bought quantities of pure silk and silk shirts.

Our holiday in China was beyond all expectations; a wonderful experience and we were very pleased to now be corresponding with Tian Beng, a student we met at Chengde University. She has now graduated to be a Tourist Guide; it provides us with a link with China, a way of keeping in contact until we return again, as we inevitably will”.

Reading this article, I can remember it all but know it must be very different these days.  The reason behind the title of this Blog, ‘No, we didn’t see the Terracotta Army’, was that the Terracotta Army had only just been known about; there were no trips to see the Army because it wasn’t on display but everyone we spoke to about China said “Did you see the Terracotta Army”, the new thing they had heard about China.  Surprisingly, the article didn’t mention the fact that on the tour there was a man that I thought I might recognise but he wasn’t one of the people we got friendly with, until we all got horribly, stunningly, drunk, drunk beyond words, on Chinese brandy in a Yurt when I asked him where he worked and it turned out this was Eric Slater, a social worker from Rothley.  It was someone I had met at meetings on a regular basis, but it is this problem of seeing someone out of context.  I can honestly say I have no idea what we talked about, but I couldn’t remember that even on the following day.  I was the one person who loved eating sparrow, it was so tasty, although I did have the opportunity of eating several since people kept sliding their sparrows onto my plate.  I am always disappointed that I have never had the chance to eat a sparrow again.  I loved China; I don’t know whether I would love it as much today, now it so geared up to tourism. I am so glad I found my original article, obviously in preparation for a Tea Towel Blog!!!

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